Ex-Falcons Freeney, Hester to be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame

Dwight Freeney of the Atlanta Falcons looks on prior to Super Bowl 51 against the New England Patriots at NRG Stadium on February 5, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Dwight Freeney of the Atlanta Falcons looks on prior to Super Bowl 51 against the New England Patriots at NRG Stadium on February 5, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS — Former Falcons Dwight Freeney and Devin Hester, who spent most of their careers with the Colts and Bears, respectively, will be enshrined Aug. 3 into the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2024 in Canton, Ohio. The enshrinees were announced on the NFL Honors show Thursday night.

Freeney (2016) was a key cog on the Falcons’ Super Bowl 51 team and started in the big game. He helped defensive line coach Bryan Cox to motivate Vic Beasley to his 15.5-sack season as he taught his patented spin move.

Hester (2014-15) was one of the NFL’s more dangerous returners.

“He changed the game when it came to special teams and the return game,” Falcons special-teams coordinator Marquice Williams said. “It changed how people wanted to cover kicks.”

Williams interned with the Bears in 2013 and worked with Hester.

Freeney played in the NFL from 2002-17 and had 125.5 sacks. He led the league in sacks one season.

Outside linebacker Julius Peppers, who played mostly with the Panthers in the NFC South, was a first-year eligible player and also will be enshrined in the class.

In addition to Freeney, Hester and Peppers, wide receiver Andre Johnson, linebacker Patrick Willis and senior candidates linebacker Randy Gradishar and defensive tackle Steve McMichael will be enshrined.

“Fantastic football player,” 49ers general manager John Lynch said of Willis. “Fantastic human being. He played it the right way. Exuded leadership. Exuded kind of what a linebacker should be to me.

“Physicality and athleticism. He played it with a passion that I think it was unique. You could tell that his teammates responded. The crowd responded to the way he played.”

Hall of Fame bios:

DWIGHT FREENEY

Times as finalist: two

Year of eligibility: second

Positions: defensive end/outside linebacker

Height: 6-1

Weight: 268

NFL career: 2002-12 Colts, 2013-14 Chargers, 2015 Cardinals, 2016 Falcons, 2017 Seahawks, 2017 Lions

Seasons: 16

Games: 218

College: Syracuse

Drafted: first round (11th overall), 2002

Born: Feb. 19, 1980, in Hartford, Connecticut

Led the nation in sacks (17.5) his senior season at Syracuse … Named Co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year while earning All-American recognition … Ran a 4.38-second- 40 yard dash in pre-draft workouts … Selected to 2002 NFL All-Rookie Team after recording 13 sacks and 20 tackles for loss … Seven Pro Bowl selections (2004-06, 2009-12) … AP first-team All-Pro in 2004, 2005 and 2009; second-team All-Pro in 2003 … Named All-AFC by PFWA 2003-05 and 2009-10 … Secured NFL Sack Title with 16 in 2004 … Member of the Colts’ Super Bowl XLI championship team and played in two additional Super Bowls (XLIV, LI) … Played in 218 regular-season games over 16 seasons in NFL … Career stat totals: 125.5 sacks, 148 quarterback hits and 128 tackles for loss … Credited with 47 forced fumbles (tied for fourth on the NFL’s all-time list) and forced three fumbles in a game on two occasions.

DEVIN HESTER

Times as finalist: three

Year of eligibility: third

Positions: punt returner/kick returner/wide receiver

Height: 5-11

Weight: 190

NFL career: 2006-13 Bears, 2014-15 Falcons, 2016 Ravens

Seasons: 11

Games: 156

College: Miami

Drafted: second round (57th overall), 2006

Born: Nov. 4, 1982, in Riviera Beach, Florida

Multi-dimensional player who joined Bears after collegiate career as offensive, defensive and special teams threat … Became immediate standout as return specialist, earning spot on 2006 NFL All-Rookie Team … In debut season, returned 47 punts for 600 yards (both NFL highs) and three TDs, along with 20 kickoffs for 528 yards and two touchdowns … Also returned a missed field goal that season for a 108-yard touchdown – one of only five such “kick-six” scores in an NFL game. … Opened Super Bowl XLI with 92-yard kickoff return for a touchdown – the only time in Super Bowl history that has occurred … In second NFL season, returned four kickoffs and two punts for scores, establishing an NFL record for six combined kick returns for TDs … First-team All-Pro three times (2006-07, 2010) … Member of the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 2010s … One of two return specialists on the NFL 100 All-Time Team.

RANDY GRADISHAR

Times as finalist: four

Year of eligibility: 35th

Position: Linebacker

Height: 6-3

Weight: 233

NFL career: 1974-83 Broncos

Seasons: 10

Games: 145

College: Ohio State

Drafted: first round (14th overall), 1974

Born: March 3, 1952, in Warren, Ohio

Unanimous All-America selection at Ohio State in 1973 … Led Denver in total tackles nine consecutive seasons, 1975-83 … Played in 145 regular-season games during 10 NFL seasons … Member of famed “Orange Crush” defensive unit of 1970s and 1980s … Named 1978 AP NFL Defensive MVP/Player of the Year … Played in Super Bowl XII, recording eight tackles … First-team All-Pro twice (1977-78), second-team three times (1979, 1981, 1983) … Played in seven Pro Bowls (1975, 1977-79, 1981-83) … Unofficial 2,049 career tackles are most in Broncos history and were most in league history at the time of his retirement … One of 10 linebackers in league history – all Hall of Famers – with at least seven Pro Bowls, 20 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries … Inducted into College Football Hall of Fame in 1998 … Member of Denver Broncos Ring of Fame.

ANDRE JOHNSON

Times as finalist: three

Year of eligibility: third

Position: wide receiver

Height: 6-3

Weight: 229

NFL career: 2003-14 Texans, 2015 Colts, 2016 Titans

Seasons: 14

Games: 193

College: Miami

Drafted: First round (third overall), 2003

Born: July 11, 1981, in Miami

Surpassed 1,000 receiving yards seven times (2004, 2006, 2008-10, 2012-13) … Led NFL in receptions twice (103 in 2006 and 115 in 2008) and in receiving yards twice (1,575 yards in 2008 and 1,569 yards in 2009) … One of only three players (Jerry Rice, Calvin Johnson) to lead NFL in receiving yards in consecutive seasons in Super Bowl era … Finished career with 1,062 receptions for 14,185 yards and 70 receiving touchdowns … Texans franchise leader in most receiving statistics … Caught five passes for 90 yards and a touchdown as Texans beat Cincinnati in first playoff appearance (2011); followed the next week with eight receptions for 111 yards in narrow loss to Ravens … Three career games with 200-plus receiving yards … First-team All-Pro twice (2008-09) … Selected to seven Pro Bowls (2004, 2006, 2008-10, 2012-13) … Member of 2003 NFL All-Rookie Team … First player elected to Texans’ Ring of Honor (2017).

STEVE McMICHAEL

Times as finalist: one

Year of eligibility: 29th

Positions: defensive tackle/nose tackle

Height: 6-2

Weight: 270

NFL career: 1980 Patriots, 1981-93 Bears, 1994 Packers

Seasons: 15

Games: 213

College: Texas

Drafted: third round (73rd overall), 1980

Born: Oct. 17, 1957, in Houston

Signed with Chicago in 1981 after being released by Patriots after one season … Started franchise-record 191 consecutive games for Bears in 13 seasons … Finished career with most tackles (814) and most sacks (92.5) in Bears history … Twice led Chicago in sacks: 1988, 1992 … Member of Bears’ defenses that allowed the fewest points, rushing yards and total yards in the NFL from 1982-1991 … Played in 14 career playoff games, making 11 starts … Won Super Bowl XX with Bears over Patriots, started at left defensive tackle and recorded a sack … Forced 13 fumbles, recovered 17 and had three safeties in 15 total seasons … Earned first-team All-Pro three times (1985-87) … Two Pro Bowl nods (1988, 1989)

JULIUS PEPPERS

Times as finalist: one

Year of eligibility: first

Positions: defensive end/outside linebacker

Height: 6-7

Weight: 295

NFL career: 2002-09, 2017-18 Panthers, 2010-13 Bears, 2014-16 Packers

Seasons: 17

Games: 266

College: North Carolina

Drafted: First round (second overall), 2002

Born: Jan. 18, 1980, in Wilson, North Carolina

Dominant defensive end who finished career fourth on all-time sacks list with 159.5 … Only player in NFL history with at least 100 sacks and 10 or more interceptions … Second all-time with 52 career forced fumbles … At the time of retirement, ranked sixth all-time among defensive players with 266 games played … Carolina Panthers franchise leader in sacks (97), forced fumbles (34) and blocked field goals (eight) … One of four players to record 10 seasons with 10-plus sacks, other three are Hall of Famers … Named 2002 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year by AP and PFWA … Led league with 18 tackles for loss in 2006 … Totaled 719 tackles, 175 tackles for loss, 186 quarterback hits … Voted to nine Pro Bowls … Three time first-team All-Pro, three times on second team … Member of the NFL’s All-Decade Team of both the 2000s and 2010s.

PATRICK WILLIS

Times as finalist: two

Year of eligibility: fifth

Position: linebacker

Height: 6-1

Weight: 242

NFL career: 2007-14 49ers

Seasons: 8

Games: 112

College: Mississippi

Drafted: First round (11th overall), 2007

Born: Jan. 25, 1985, in Bruceton, Tennessee.

Immediate starter for 49ers after joining team in 2007 … Totaled 174 tackles, four sacks, seven QB hits and eight tackles for loss in earning 2007 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year Award … Named first-team All-Pro five times in eight NFL seasons (2007, 2009, 2010-12) … Selected to Pro Bowl following seven consecutive seasons (2007-2013) … Won NFL’s version of the Butkus Award (then in its second year) in 2009, following his best season statistically overall: 152 tackles, four sacks, three forced fumbles, eight pass deflections and career-bests of three interceptions and 13 tackles for loss … Won the Bill Walsh Award in 2009 as the 49ers’ most valuable player … Contributed 10 tackles in Super Bowl XLVII loss to Baltimore Ravens … Career stats include 20.5 sacks, 60 tackles for loss, eight interceptions and 16 forced fumbles. … Named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 2010s.

Dwight Freeney of the Falcons celebrates after defeating Green Bay Packers in the NFC championship game at the Georgia Dome last Sunday. The Falcons won to advance to this week’s Super Bowl, which will be the final game of Freeney’s career if he retires. (Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

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ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 18: Wide receiver Devin Hester #17 of the Atlanta Falcons returns a punt for a touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during a game at the Georgia Dome on September 18, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

Credit: Scott Cunningham

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Credit: Scott Cunningham

September 18, 2014 Atlanta - Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Devin Hester (17) runs for a touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as Atlanta Falcons fullback Patrick DiMarco (42) clears his way in the first half during the first half in their NFL football game on Thursday, September 18, 2014. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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